by Deborah Madison



Those who have rhubarb in their gardens no doubt find its appearance a welcome if somewhat startling sign of spring. It emerges as a fistlike ball pushing through the earth, and you can't imagine that leaves will eventually unfold from such knotty material, but they do. They start out yellow and become greener and larger as the stalks lengthen. And, although we think of rhubarb as red, in fact it can be either red or green. Victoria, for example, is an heirloom that produces mostly green stalks and only the occasional red one. Cooked, the green stalks break down into a subtle pea-green puree but taste just like the red varieties.

Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, even though we habitually refer to it as a fruit. At one point, the U.S. Customs Court arrogantly ruled that rhubarb was a fruit, as if government can overrule the laws of botany! And that's pretty much how we think about rhubarb, as long as there's plenty of sugar. Without a sweetener, rhubarb is sour. Add to that the fact that the leaves are poisonous, and you might wonder how humans came to even consider eating such a plant. But after a long winter diet of meat and starch, you might be able to imagine that rhubarb would be welcome—not as pie but as a tonic to get one's sluggish system going again. Before sugar was plentiful and cheap, rhubarb was cooked in soups and sauces, especially in the chilly northern parts of the world.

When it comes to dessert, however, rhubarb figures well in compotes and fools, tarts, crisps, and compotes. Regardless of how it's cooked, rhubarb nearly always falls apart into a puree, with the exception of the Baked Rhubarb on page 80 of the book.

Rhubarb is flattered by a constellation of other fruits and flavors. Orange is a constant whether it's the fruit, zest, orange-flower water, or liqueur. Blood oranges are even better, given their crimson color and more complex flavor, but grapefruit and Meyer lemon are interesting as well. I always like clove with rhubarb as well as the orange, and I turn to that duo over and over. But spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, and ginger flatter as well. Maple syrup and maple sugar are good alternatives to white sugar, having more depth of flavor.

Strawberries are endlessly paired with rhubarb, but that's mostly because we think of them as seasonally compatible—the first fruits. And they do make a great pair. But since rhubarb thrives where weather is cool and can therefore persist well into summer, there are other options. One July I bought long, handsome stalks of rhubarb from a farm in Washington just when the blackberries were in season, and the two made a stellar compote.


Late Summer Rhubarb and Blackberry Compote

Serves 6

Blackberries are just as appealing as strawberries with rhubarb, if not more so, and certainly far more dramatic looking. But since strawberries are often around then, too, why not have some of both here?

Use the poaching liquid to make Rhubarb Syrup: Pour the juice off the cooked fruit and boil it until thick and syrupy, a matter of 15 minutes or fewer. Add a teaspoon or two of orange-flower water or orange liqueur to taste. Cool, then refrigerate. Use this syrup to embellish a Rhubarb Fool (page 209 of the book) or the Individual Rhubarb Tarts.

1. Rinse the rhubarb, trim the stalks, then cut them into pieces 1 inch long. Measure the orange juice and add enough water to make 2 cups. Put it in a wide pan with the orange zest, sugar, and vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stir to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat to a quiet simmer. Add the rhubarb and cook carefully, turning the pieces so that they cook evenly. Often a piece that is cooked on one side is still a bit firm on the other side. It takes only about 10 minutes for them to be done.

2. Use a slotted spoon to remove each piece as it finishes cooking to a wide bowl, alternating with the blackberries.

3. Return the poaching liquid to the stove and boil until only 3/4 cup remains, after 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the rose water, then pour the syrup over the fruit. Refrigerate and serve cold.


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This page created August 2010